You may recall hearing about a young Humpback that washed ashore near White Rock, BC, on June 12th. This unfortunate whale was entangled in some sort of fishing line (though not of a type immediately recognizable to any experts) which resulted in starvation and eventually death. The whale attracted a good deal of media attention at the time, as well as a great deal of interest from people in the area. If you have not already read the excellent piece by the Marine Detective on the whale's sad yet beautiful story, I highly recommend it.
However, the whale's story didn't end there. It was loaded onto a barge and towed up through Georgia and Johnstone Straits to Bauza Cove, just around the corner from Beaver Cove on northern Vancouver Island. The reason for this location is the Whale Interpretive Centre in nearby Telegraph Cove where the whale's skeleton will eventually be put on display and used for public education.
Before that could happen though, several thousand pounds of flesh and entrails had to be removed.
Last week I had the opportunity, along with many others, to take part in the first step of this process which involved "flensing" or removing the outer layer of blubber from the whale. As you can see from the pictures below, this was no mean feat since the entire exterior of the thirty-foot long whale was covered in a three-inch layer of the stuff.
Add to that the whale's thick rubbery skin that covers the blubber like a suit of armor, and all but the sharpest tools are virtually useless.
It was quickly evident why these whales rarely fall prey to killer whales or other marine predators, except when they are attacked as calves. While other large baleen whales are long and streamlined to allow them to swim away quickly at the first sign of trouble, Humpbacks have a sturdier frame and are usually covered in barnacles which adds to their already formidable skin. They also use their long, knobby pectoral fins as weapons to aid in their defense.
While this is a great strategy to fend off killer whales, it wasn't much use against industrial whaling, which decimated the north-east Pacific population in the first half of the 20th century. It was odd to think that only a generation ago, men in Coal Harbour were using the same tools and techniques (albeit with a bit more skill) to flense these great whales to a very different end.
As the outer layers of the whale were stripped away, the internal structure of the whale began to emerge. Fingernail-like baleen plates attached to the upper jaws (the whale is upside down in the photo below trap plankton and other foods in each mouthful of water as it is pushed out by the giant tongue, which weighs around 200 pounds. One of these plates was removed intact and was over six feet long.
There was still much work to do at the end of the day. Even after all of the flesh has been removed and the bones cleaned it would be three years before they could finally be articulated into a complete skeleton.
It was moving to see the response from the public when the whale first washed ashore, it was still more invigorating to see all of the people who pitched in to help preserve its skeleton so that visitors from around Canada and the world to gain a greater appreciation for this magnificent creature.
Now if only I could find a way to get the smell out of my rain gear...